Melody of time

Melody of time September 20, 2010

Charles Taylor neatly contrasts Augustine’s conception of time and eternity to that of Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus.  Eternity is not for him timelessness but “gathered time.”  He expounds:

Augustine’s “instant is not the ‘nun’ of Aristotle, which is a limit, like a point, an extensionless boundary of time periods.  rather, it is the gathering together of past into my present to project a future.  The past, which ‘objectively’ exists no more, is here in my present; it shapes this moment in which I turn to a future, which ‘objectively’ is not yet, but which is here qua project . . . .

“This creates a kind of simultaneity between the components of my action; my action knits together my situation as it emerges from my past with the future I project as a response to it.  They make sense of each other.  They cannot be dissociated, and in this way there is a certain minimum consistency in the now of action, a minimal thickness, below which time cannot be further dissected without disaggregating the coherence of action.  This is the kind of coherence we find in a melody or in a poem, favourite examples of Augustine.  There is a kind of simultaneity of the first note with the last, because all have to sound in the presence of the others in order for the melody to be heard.  In this micro-environment, time is crucial because it gives us the order of notes which is constitutive of the melody.  But it is not here playing the role of time the destroyer, which has carried my youth off to an inaccessible distance, and closed the door on bygones ages.  There is thus a kind of extended simultaneity of the moment or action or enjoyment, which we see also, for instance, in a conversation which really engages us.  Your question, my reply, your rejoinder occur in this sense together, even though like the melody, their ordering in time is of the essence.”

The implications of this wonderful little passage are vast.  First, all action is musical; that is, to make any sense at all, the action has to arise from a past of prior actions and aim toward an end; it is part of a melody.  Second, it is possible to “disaggregate” the coherence of action; the definition of madness is precisely this, the dissonance of the melody of action, the disjunction between the action in the present from all prior actions and from all future aims.  Third, this gives us a time that is not Kronos; time is necessary for the coherent ordering of action, but at the same time the first notes of the melody of my action have to continue resounding in and through my action toward my project if the action is coherent at all; the first notes have to be simultaneous with the last; the last shall be first.


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